What to watch for from U.S. Women’s National Team on Wednesday

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PORTLAND, Ore. — The Tom Sermanni era of United States Women’s National Team soccer is still over a month away, even if the transition period begins tomorrow. At tenuous post-Tom, pre-Pia period means the match will be like most since the U.S. won gold: rich on star power but light on relevance.

A continuation of the States’ prolonged post-Olympic celebration tour, Wednesday’s match against the Republic of Ireland comes two-and-a-half years before the team’s next major competition. It also features an opponent that’s ranked 34th in the world (10 spots below Mexico) that never threatened to get out of their group in Euro 2013 qualifying. If last month’s matches against Germany were overlooked, Wednesday’s may barely be noticed.

The level of competition is a reminder of context. This is a celebration tour. The team’s not preparing for anything; rather, they’re taking this opportunity to leverage a successful Olympic campaign, selling a few tickets in the process.

The most important part of this year-ending, five-match stretch (two against Ireland, three against China) will be a veteran auditioning for their new coach. Even though Jillian Ellis will continue running the team, every player knows Tom Sermanni will be watching. How the team performs in this pre-tryout period will be the main reason to follow the next three weeks worth of games.

Here are some areas to watch, though for a team that’s gone 23-1-3 this year, they’re all relative concerns:

source: AP1. When will the Serrmani effect be felt?

The question is actually assumptive, on three levels. It presumes a new coach (a) who has still not officially taken over will (a) have an effect and (b) that effect’s impact is a matter of when, not if. It’s possible the 58-year-old Scot’s main influence will be on continuity – forcing a bridge between a highly successful Sundhage regime and his own. If that happens, we won’t be able to detect Sermanni’s influence.

Although there were small stylistic differences in how Sermanni’s Australia teams played, the approach was largely the same as a U.S. side that’s aspired to a more possession-sensitive approach in the wake of Germany 2011. When he arrives, Sermanni (right), who has already spoken positively about his new team’s technical qualities (hinting they may be underrated), will help this progression, though we’re unlikely to see much difference in the interim.

Still, as a Portland crowd who have been waiting for Caleb Porter know, an absentee coach’s effects can still be felt. If you see this U.S. team show a sudden disinclination toward playing long out of the back, credit Tom Sermanni.

MORE: More detail on the U.S.’s new head coach

source: AP2. Is the defense improving?

National team diehards have long expressed concerns about the team’s defending, with seven goals allowed in six World Cup matches underscoring the team’s problems against top competition. Those problems appeared on the wane when the U.S. gave up only three goals in this year’s first 10 games, but as the Olympic semifinal against Canada showed, the U.S. have to outgun too many teams. Over their last seven games, the U.S. have given up 10 goals.

A lot of that was Pia Sundhage’s willingness to play open games. With a new coach coming in, the defense may need to prove it can lock down opponents.

Christie Rampone (right), the team’s 37-year-old captain, appears to be sticking around to anchor the defense. She’s still among the best players in the world at her position, though the spot to her left – often occupied by Rachel Buehler – needs to be firmed up. That could be done by restoring Buehler’s confidence, though fan favorite Becky Sauerbrunn, who possesses the ball skills to help the U.S.’s stylistic shift, should be considered.

source: Getty Images3. [Obligatory concern about the midfield here]

The States have a lot of depth in attack and on the wings, but in midfield, they’re sorely lacking for choice. Shannon Boxx, Lauren Cheney (right), and Carli Lloyd are Sermanni’s — uh, Ellis’s — current options, with Cheney and Lloyd the likely pairing as the team approaches Canada 2015. Cheney’s positional versatility and Lloyd’s flare for the dramatic make it a capable pair, but against teams like France, Germany, and Japan, the lack of speed, variety, and ball-winning leave the U.S. at a disadvantage.

In Megan Rapinoe and Tobin Heath, Sermanni has wide players capable of playing attacking midfield positions, but it’s unclear whether that role would conflict with Abby Wambach, who (with the emergence of Alex Morgan) spends more time occupying that space, waiting for play to come to her feet.

The other idea would be to restore Sauerbrunn to the midfield, a role she playing in college. At the base of a triangle with Cheney and Lloyd, Sauerbrunn would allow the two more attacked-minded midfielders to venture forward without exposing the defense. Her skill on the ball can act as a fulcrum when the States have established their attack, while her time as a defender make her the best choice to protect (and possibly solve the problems of) a vulnerable defense.

Conceivably carrying many of the qualities of a player like Barcelona’s Sergio Busquets, Sauerbrunn’s a potential response to the midfield strength of the U.S.’s main rivals (Germany, France, Japan). While some have envisioned a similar role for Lauren Cheney, moving Sauerbrunn into midfield would allow one of the States’ goal scoring threats to stay higher up the field.

MORE: Coach Sermanni’s to-do list ahead of Canada 2015

source: Getty Images4. Is Heath really a wide player?

For most of her career at North Carolina, Heath played left midfield for teams that won three national titles, a position that allowed her to take on defenders with her elite one-on-one skills. Three years after playing her last game at Chapel Hill, Heath has started to establish herself in the same position with the national team, though with mixed results.

She still shows the ability to break down a defender one-on-one, but against a higher level of competition, it happens less often. When she does beat her mark, her opposition’s increased athleticism means quicker recovery. Even when Heath’s skills prove a plus, they aren’t enough of an advantage to justify forgoing opportunities to work through Wambach and Morgan, particularly since Heath’s yet to prove a strong crosser of the ball.

Her skill, however, is undeniable, and it’s not difficult to imagine her passing, vision, and quickness being effective in the middle, given the right teammates around her. In the middle, her shot from 18-24 yards can be a real weapon. It all begs a question Serrmani must eventually answer: Is Heath a wide player – somebody who should be taking time away from Heather O’Reilly – or somebody who can help a thin midfield? Her latest audition begins Wednesday.

source: Getty Images5. Is Portland ready for the new big time?

When U.S. Soccer announced the new women’s professional league last week, president Sunil Gulati noted that for the time there would be a direct link between Major League Soccer and one of the top-flight women’s teams. The Paulson family, backers of MLS’s Portland Timbers, had signed on to support a women’s team, one that will likely make Jeld-Wen Field its home.

It’s tempting to see Wednesday night’s game as a test of women’s soccer in Portland, but for a number of reasons, we’re unlikely to see the amped atmosphere that accompanies Timbers games. As of Monday, thanks to little citywide buzz and a $38 entry-level ticket price, only 8,600 tickets had been sold for Wednesday’s match, a number trailing ticket sales for upcoming games in Phoenix, Detroit, and Houston. Add in the late weekday start and the bite of a fall northwest night, and the game won’t threaten Jeld-Wen’s 20,438 capacity.

Perversely, all those circumstances could make Wednesday’s match a good litmus test for women’s professional soccer in Portland. Even though the new team won’t be playing in late fall, there are a number of other obstacles it will have to overcome. Creating buzz will always be a problem (especially in a city that’s fallen for its MLS product), but ticket prices will be much more reasonable.

Given the circumstances that are keeping many away, getting a crowd of over 10,000 for Wednesday’s game against Ireland would be a great sign for the new professional team, especially if two or three of the night’s stars are playing for Portland come March.

Europa League, LIVE: Arsenal, Everton in action

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Crunch time is arriving in the UEFA Europa League group stage.

[ LIVE: Follow Europa League games ]

Two Premier League teams are in action on Thursday as Everton host Lyon at Goodison Park and Arsenal face a tough trip to Red Star Belgrade.

Everton have yet to win in the Europa League, while the Gunners are sitting top of their group with two wins from two.

Below is a look at the full schedule for Thursday’s games, while you can click on the link above to stay updated on all the action across Europe with the likes of AC Milan, Athletic Bilbao and Lazio all in action.

Thursday’s Europa League schedule

11:00 a.m. ET: Astana vs. Maccabi Tel-Aviv
1 p.m. ET: BATE vs. Cologne
1 p.m. ET: Hapoel Beer Sheva vs. Steaua
1 p.m. ET: Konyaspor vs. Red Bull Salzburg
1 p.m. ET: Lugano vs. Viktoria
1 p.m. ET: Marseille  vs. Guimaraes
1 p.m. ET: Nice vs. Lazio
1 p.m. ET: Ostersunds FK vs. Athletic Bilbao
1 p.m. ET: Red Star Belgrade vs. Arsenal
1 p.m. ET: Vardar vs. Real Sociedad
1 p.m. ET: Zenit vs. Rosenborg
1 p.m. ET: Zorya vs. Hertha Berlin
1 p.m. ET: Zulte-Waregem vs. Vitesse
3:05 p.m. ET: AC Milan vs. AEK Athens
3:05 p.m. ET: Atalanta vs. Apollon Limassol
3:05 p.m. ET: Austria Vienna vs. Rijeka
3:05 p.m. ET: Dynamo Kyiv vs. Young Boys
3:05 p.m. ET: Everton vs. Lyon
3:05 p.m. ET: Fastav Zlin vs. Copenhagen
3:05 p.m. ET: SC Braga vs. Ludogorets
3:05 p.m. ET: Sheriff vs. Lokomotiv Moscow
3:05 p.m. ET: Skenderbeu vs. Partizan
3:05 p.m. ET: TSG Hoffenheim vs. Istanbul Basaksehir
3:05 p.m. ET: vs. Villarreal Slavia Prague

Premier League releases new schedule for December games

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Start planning for the festive period.

[ LIVE: Stream every Premier League game

The Premier League have announced their updated game schedule for the month of December, with several games moved to set up marathon windows of action across the festive period.

PL action galore and eggnog. Sign me up.

Premier League Executive Chairman Richard Scudamore revealed that the festive fixtures were particularly challenging to schedule this season was particularly

“We appreciate this is the peak time for supporters attending and watching the Premier League. With matches scheduled on Christmas weekend for the first time in 11 years, the process of selecting games for live broadcast has been a more complex one than usual and I would like to thank our broadcast partners and clubs for their co-operation and flexibility,” Scudamore said. “We can now announce we have a fantastic selection of 24 live televised matches for supporters to enjoy in December whether in the stadiums or at home.”

Some of the highlights include three games on December 23, a Manchester derby on Dec. 10 and

Below is a look at the new dates/times for games which have been moved.


Saturday 2 December
7:30 a.m ET: Chelsea v Newcastle
12:30 p.m. ET: Arsenal v Man Utd

Sunday 3 December
8:30 a.m. ET: AFC Bournemouth v Southampton
11 a.m. ET: Man City v West Ham

Saturday 9 December
7:30 a.m. ET: West Ham v Chelsea
12:30 p.m. ET: Newcastle v Leicester

Sunday 10 December
7 a.m ET: Southampton v Arsenal
9:15 a.m. ET: Liverpool v Everton
11:30 a.m. ET: Man Utd v Man City

Tuesday 12 December
3 p.m. ET: Huddersfield Town v Chelsea

Wednesday 13 December
2:45 p.m. ET: Swansea City v Man City
3 p.m. ET: Man Utd v AFC Bournemouth
Both further to Manchester derby moving to 10 December
3 p.m. ET: West Ham v Arsenal

Saturday 16 December
7:30 Leicester City v Crystal Palace
Subject to change dependent on EFL Cup 5th round participation
12:30 p.m. ET: Man City v Spurs

Sunday 17 December
9:15 a.m. ET: West Brom v Man Utd
Subject to change dependent on Everton and/or Swansea reaching EFL Cup 5th round
11:30 a.m. ET: AFC Bournemouth v Liverpool

Monday 18 December
3 p.m. ET: Everton v Swansea
Subject to change dependent on Everton and/or Swansea reaching EFL Cup 5th round

Friday 22 December
2:45 p.m. ET: Arsenal v Liverpool

Saturday 23 December
7:30 a.m. ET: Everton v Chelsea
12:30 p.m. ET: Burnley v Spurs
2:45 p.m. ET: Leicester City v Man Utd

Tuesday 26 December
7:30 a.m. ET: Spurs v Southampton
12:30 p.m. ET: Liverpool v Swansea

Wednesday 27 December
2:45 p.m. ET: Newcastle United v Man City

Thursday 28 December
3 p.m. ET: Crystal Palace v Arsenal
Because of their selection on 28 December, neither Arsenal nor Crystal Palace will play on 30 December.

Northern Ireland manager O’Neill banned for DUI

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EDINBURGH, Scotland (AP) Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill has pleaded guilty to drunk driving and been banned from the road for 16 months.

O’Neill was caught by police on the outskirts of Edinburgh at about 1 a.m. on Sept. 10 and was found to be around three times the legal drink-drive limit.

O’Neill appeared on Thursday at Edinburgh Sheriff Court where he received the driving ban and fine of 1,300 pounds ($1,700).

O’Neill’s solicitor, James Mulgrew, told the court “this was simply a bad error of judgment.”

Northern Ireland is still in contention for its first World Cup trip since 1986. The team plays Switzerland in a two-leg playoff next month to qualify for the World Cup in Russia next year.

More AP World Cup coverage: http://www.apnews.com/tag/WorldCup

Newcastle takeover bid moves closer

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Newcastle United fans are getting very, very excited.

PCP Capital Partners, led by Amanda Staveley, have signed a confidentiality agreement with the club’s owners after Mike Ashley put the club up for sale earlier this week

Ashley is said to value Newcastle at over $520 million, while Staveley is said to believe the club is worth close to $395 million, so there is plenty of negotiating still to happen but things are heading in the right direction.

In a statement on Monday Ashley said he would allow any potential buyer to pay the overall transaction fee in installments, while he also wants a buy to be completed by the end of December.

Who is Staveley?

She was seen at a Newcastle vs. Liverpool game at St James’ Park earlier this month as speculation was rife that a new owner was being lined up to buy Newcastle. That is indeed the case and Staveley, 44, is now able to look over the finances of the club exclusively.

Staveley oversaw the purchase of Manchester City by Abu Dhabi United and also lined up a deal for Liverpool to be bought by Dubai International Captial which fell through in the past.

Her close links to the Middle East has seen her become one of the most prominent British businesswomen in recent years and she currently manages over $34 billion of wealth globally. Staveley and her investors are said to be interested in buying several Premier League clubs.

Ashley’s lawyer, Andrew Henderson, released a statement on Thursday stating several other parties have inquired about buying the club since the announcement came that they were up for sale.

“Since Monday, a number of additional parties have come forward which we believe to be credible. We are also continuing to engage with a number of parties with whom we had entered into negotiations prior to Monday’s announcement.”

Things are moving very quickly for Newcastle’s fans as they thought they’d never get rid of much-maligned owner Ashley who is a lifelong fan of the club and bought them in 2007.

After two relegations from the Premier League (followed by instant returns to the PL on both occasions) Ashley has been accused of failing to spend money on the playing squad and realize Newcastle’s full potential as they challenged for the Premier League title on numerous occasions during the 1990s.

With Rafael Benitez getting the most of his squad and the Magpies sitting in the top 10 of the PL as things stand, the future is looking bright for Newcastle with plenty of investment expected if this sale does go through to Staveley or those she is closely connected with.